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date: 19 June 2021

Introduction: What Is Positive About Positive Organizational Scholarship?

Abstract and Keywords

The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship synthesizes much of the knowledge that has been generated after approximately ten years of research in the area of study called Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS). The Handbook identifies what is known, what is not known, and what is in need of further investigation going forward. The Handbook clarifies the definition and domain of POS, takes special care to define what is and is not meant by the term “positive,” describes the history and development of this area of scientific inquiry, and explains why research in POS is so important as a scientific endeavor.

Positive organizational scholarship rigorously seeks to understand what represents the best of the human condition based on scholarly research and theory. Just as positive psychology focuses on exploring optimal individual psychological states rather than pathological ones, organizational scholarship focuses attention on the generative dynamics in organizations that lead to the development of human strength, foster resiliency in employees, enable healing and restoration, and cultivate extraordinary individual and organizational performance. POS emphasizes what elevates individuals and organizations (in addition to what challenges them), what goes right in organizations (in addition to what goes wrong), what is life-giving (in addition to what is problematic or life-depleting), what is experienced as good (in addition to what is objectionable), and what is inspiring (in addition to what is difficult or arduous). While note ignoring dysfunctional or typical patterns of behavior, examines the enablers, motivations, and effects associated with remarkably positive phenomena—how they are facilitated, why they work, how they can be identified, and how organizations can capitalize on them. The Handbook is intended to be the “go-to” place for scholars and others interested in learning about POS.

Keywords: Positive Organizational Scholarship, positive, POS, POS history, POS domain, positive organizational psychology

(p. 1) In 2003, positive organizational scholarship was first introduced as a new field of study in the organizational sciences. The primary objective of the Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship is to compile and synthesize much of the knowledge that has been generated regarding this distinctive focus of inquiry in the past 10 years. This Handbook identifies what is known, what is not known, and what needs further investigation in positive organizational scholarship (POS). The 79 chapters in this Handbook are not intended to be a comprehensive summary of all related POS topics, but they represent a good sampling of work that has adopted a POS perspective. This introductory chapter clarifies the definition and domain of POS, why it is an important field of study, and why POS emerged as a discipline in the first place. This volume is divided into nine parts to organize the chapters’ themes. The concluding chapter summarizes major contributions, key findings, and explanations for the results discussed in the volume’s chapters.

What Is POS?

Positive organizational scholarship is an umbrella concept used to unify a variety of approaches in organizational studies, each of which incorporates the (p. 2) notion of “the positive.” In previously published work, several descriptions have been used to define the domain of POS, including, “the states and processes that arise from and result in life-giving dynamics, optimal functioning, and enhanced capabilities and strengths” (Dutton & Glynn, 2007, p. 693); “an emphasis on identifying individual and collective strengths (attributes and processes) and discovering how such strengths enable human flourishing (goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience)” (Roberts, 2006, p. 292); “the study of especially positive outcomes, processes, and attributes of organizations and their members,” and a “focus on dynamics that are typically described by words such as excellence, thriving, flourishing, abundance, resilience, or virtuousness” (Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn, 2003, p. 4); and “organizational research occurring at the micro, meso, and macro levels which points to unanswered questions about what processes, states, and conditions are important in explaining individual and collective flourishing. Flourishing refers to being in an optimal range of human functioning” (Dutton, 2010, OMT website). These descriptions all emphasize similar terms that describe processes, dynamics, perspectives, and outcomes considered to be positive.

In brief, the “O” (organizational) in POS focuses on investigating positive processes and states that occur in association with organizational contexts. It examines positive phenomena within organizations and among organizations, as well as positive organizational contexts themselves. The “S” (scholarship) in POS focuses on pursuing rigorous, systematic, and theory-based foundations for positive phenomena. Positive organization scholarship requires a careful definitions of terms, a rationale for prescriptions and recommendations, consistency with scientific procedures in drawing conclusions, a theoretical rationale, and grounding in previous scholarly work.

The most controversial concept associated with POS is the “P”—positive. Most of the misunderstandings and criticisms of POS have centered on this concept, creating controversy in organizational studies and spawning both skeptics and advocates. The term “positive” is accused of having a potentially restrictive connotation and values bias (Fineman, 2006; George, 2004) and as being a naïve and dangerous term producing more harm than good (Ehrenreich, 2009). It is criticized as implying that most organizational science is negative, that an ethnocentric bias is being represented, or that a narrow moral agenda is being pursued. The term has been credited, on the other hand, with expanding and enriching the domain that explains performance in organizations and with opening up, rather than restricting, organizational studies (Dutton & Glynn, 2007; Caza & Cameron, 2008). These contradictions have arisen at least partly because of the definitional ambiguity surrounding this term.

A review of dictionary definitions of “positive” reveals that the concept has such a wide range of connotations and so many applications that it defies establishing precise conceptual boundaries (e.g., Webster’s, Oxford, American Heritage). Literally scores of meanings are offered. Precise conceptual definition, however, does not necessarily provide scientific clarity: Consider, for example, definitions of terms such as “love” or “effectiveness.” People know what love is through experience rather than through an explanation of its conceptual boundaries or nomological network.

On the other hand, some convergence on the meaning of “positive” has begun to occur as the term has been employed in scholarly work over the past decade. The convergence can be summarized in four approaches to help specify the domain of POS. Identifying these themes helps provide a conceptual explanation of what “positive” means in the context of POS.

One approach to “positive” is adopting a unique lens or an alternative perspective. Adopting a POS lens means that the interpretation of phenomena is altered. For example, challenges and obstacles are reinterpreted as opportunities and strength-building experiences rather than as tragedies or problems (Gittell, Cameron, Lim, & Rivas, 2006; Lee, Caza, Edmondson, & Thomke, 2003; Sutcliffe & Vogus, 2003). Variables not previously recognized or seriously considered become central, such as positive energy (Baker, Cross, & Wooten, 2003); moral capital (Godfrey, 2003); flow (Quinn, 2002); inspiration (Thrash & Elliot, 2003); compassion (Dutton et al., 2006); elevation (Vianello, Galliani, & Haidt, 2010); and callings (Wrzesniewski, 2003) in organizations. Adopting a POS lens means that adversities and difficulties reside as much in the domain of POS as do celebrations and successes, but a positive lens focuses attention on the life-giving elements or generative processes associated with these phenomena. It is the positive perspective—not the nature of the phenomena—that draws an issue into the POS domain.

A second consensual approach to the concept of “positive” is a focus on extraordinarily positive outcomes or positively deviant performance (Spreitzer & Sonenshein, 2003). This means that outcomes are investigated that dramatically exceed common or expected performance.

(p. 3) Investigating spectacular results, surprising outcomes, and extraordinary achievements have been the focus of several investigations (e.g., Gittell, et al., 2006; Hess & Cameron, 2006; Tutu, 1999; Worthington, 2001), with each treating “positive” as synonymous with exceptional performance. Reaching a level of positive deviance, in other words, extends beyond achieving effectiveness or ordinary success. Instead, it represents “intentional behaviors that depart from the norm of a reference group in honorable ways” (Spreitzer & Sonenshein, 2003, p. 209). For example, the closure and clean-up of the Rocky Flats Nuclear arsenal exceeded federal standards by a factor of 13–60 years ahead of schedule and $30 billion under budget (Cameron & Lavine, 2006). Examining how the number-one rated delicatessen in America—located in Ann Arbor, Michigan—achieved that distinction (Baker & Gunderson, 2005); the cultural and organizational transformations that occurred in South Africa with the release of Nelson Mandela from prison (Tutu, 1999); and the extraordinary success of a financial services organization that adopted POS as a corporate strategy (Vanette, Cameron, & Powley, 2008) illustrate these types of studies. Investigating the indicators of and explanatory processes accounting for such positively deviant performance is one area in which “positive” has taken on a consensual connotation.

A third area of convergence regarding the term “positive” is that it represents an affirmative bias that fosters resourcefulness. Positive organizational scholarship accepts the premise that positivity unlocks and elevates resources in individuals, groups, and organizations, so that capabilities are broadened and capacity is built and strengthened (Fredrickson, 2002, 2009). “Resourcefulness” means that individuals and organizations experience an amplifying effect when exposed to positivity, such that resources and capacity expand (Dutton & Sonenshein, 2009; Fredrickson, 2003). All living systems have a heliotropic inclination (Erhard-Seibold, 1937) toward positive energy (Cameron, 2008a), so that, indeed, positivity is life-giving (Cooperrider & Srivastra, 1987; Diener, 2009b). Adopting an affirmative bias, therefore, prioritizes positive energy, positive climate, positive relationships, positive communication, and positive meaning in organizations (Cameron, 2008b), as well as the value embedded in difficult challenges or negative events (Harter & Clifton, 2003; Losada & Heaphy, 2004; Worline & Quinn, 2003). Positive organizational scholarship is unapologetic in emphasizing affirmative attributes, capabilities, and possibilities more than problems, threats, and weakness, so that strengths-based activities and outcomes are highlighted (Clifton & Harter, 2003). Again, an affirmative approach does not exclude considering negative events. Rather, these are incorporated in accounting for life-giving dynamics, generating resources, and flourishing outcomes (e.g., Dutton, et al., 2006; Dutton & Glynn, 2008; Weick, 2003).

A fourth area of convergence regarding the concept of the positive is the examination of virtuousness or the best of the human condition. Positive organization scholarship is based on a eudaemonic assumption—that is, the postulation that an inclination exists in all human systems toward achieving the highest aspirations of humankind (Aristotle, Metaphysics XII; Dutton & Sonenshein, 2009). Studying virtuousness means examining excellence and goodness for its own sake—captured by the Latin virtus and the Greek arête. Although debate has arisen regarding what constitutes goodness and whether universal human virtues can be identified, all societies and cultures possess catalogues of traits that they deem virtuous, that represent what is morally good, and that define the highest aspirations of human beings (Comte-Sponville, 2001; Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

Positive organizational scholarship examines the development of and the effects associated with virtuousness and eudaemonism (Bright, Cameron, & Caza, 2006; Cameron, 2003; Ilies, Nahrgang, & Morgeson, 2007), or “that which is good in itself and is to be chosen for its own sake” (Aristotle, Metaphysics XII, p. 3). Studies of virtuousness in organizations focus on individuals’ behaviors in organizational settings that help others flourish (Fowers & Tjeltveit, 2003), including investigating character strengths, gratitude, wisdom, forgiveness, hope, and courage (Grant & Schwartz, 2011; Luthans, Norman, Avolio, & Avey, 2008). Studies of virtuousness through organizations focus on practices and processes in organizations that represent and perpetuate what is good, right, and worthy of cultivation (McCullough & Snyder, 2001; Park & Peterson, 2003). This includes, for example, investigating profound purpose and transcendent objectives (Emmons, 1999); healing routines (Powley & Piderit, 2008); institutionalized forgiveness (Cameron & Caza, 2002); and human sustainability (Pfeffer, 2010).

These four convergent uses of the concept of “positive”—adopting a positive lens, investigating extraordinarily positive performance, espousing an affirmative bias, and exploring virtuousness or eudaemonism—do not precisely define the term “positive” per se, but they do identify the scholarly (p. 4) domain that POS scholars are attempting to map. Similar to other concepts in organizational science that do not have precisely bounded definitions (e.g., culture, innovation, core competence), this mapping provides the conceptual boundaries required to locate POS as an area of inquiry.

It is important to underscore that POS is not value-neutral. It advocates the position that the desire to improve the human condition is universal and that the capacity to do so is latent in almost all human systems. Thus, whereas traditionally positive outcomes such as improving the organization, and achieving goals or profitability are not excluded from consideration, POS has a bias toward life-giving, generative, and ennobling human conditions regardless of whether they are attached to traditional economic or political benefits.

How Did POS Emerge?

Unlike positive psychology, POS did not emerge as an attempt to rebalance the prodigious emphasis on illness and languishing in organizations. Organizational research has not been focused overwhelmingly on failure, damage, and demise. In fact, studying organizational decline was first introduced in organizational studies in 1980 (Whetten, 1980) because most organizational theories focused almost exclusively on growth. Big was assumed to be better than small; getting more was preferable to getting less. Negative phenomena did not dominate organizational studies literature as it did in psychology, even though plenty of attention had been paid to alienation, stress, injustice, and the evils of bureaucracy in traditional organizational studies (e.g., Weber, 1997).

Rather, POS arose because an array of organizational phenomena was being ignored; consequently, such phenomena were neither systematically studied nor valued. It was usually not considered legitimate in scientific circles, for example, to discuss the effects of virtues in organizations or to use terms such as “flourishing” or “positive deviance” to describe outcomes. Studies of compassion and forgiveness—two of the early studies in the POS literature (Cameron & Caza, 2002; Dutton et al., 2002)—certainly diverged from the mainstream of organizational science. Similarly, certain kinds of organizational processes—for example, generative dynamics—remained largely uninvestigated, including high-quality connections (Dutton & Ragins, 2007); thriving (Spreitzer, Sutcliffe, Dutton, Sonenshein, & Grant, 2005); connectivity (Losada & Heaphy, 2004); and positive energy networks (Baker et al., 2003).

Positive organizational scholarship also arose because the outcome variables that dominated the organization literature focused mainly on profitability, competitive advantage, problem solving, and economic efficiency (Davis & Marquis, 2005; Goshal, 2005; Jensen, 2002). Granted, outcomes such as job satisfaction, justice, and teamwork have appeared frequently in the organizational studies literature (Guzzo & Dickson, 1996; Kramer, 1999; Smith, Kendall, & Hulin, 1969), but alternative outcomes such as psychological, social, and eudaemonic well-being (Gallagher, Lopez, & Preacher, 2009; Keyes, 2005)—including social integration, social contribution, social coherence, social actualization, and social acceptance—as well as human sustainability (Pfeffer, 2010), were largely outside the purview of mainline organizational science. The best of the human condition—what people care about deeply and profoundly—was much less visible in organizational scholarship. The famous statement by Robert Kennedy in a March 18, 1968 speech at the University of Kansas is illustrative:

The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate, or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Positive organizational scholarship might be argued to have a long history, dating back to William James’ (1902) writings on what he termed “healthy mindedness,”

Allport’s (1960) interest in positive human characteristics; Jahoda’s (1959) emphasis on prevention-based community psychology; Maslow’s (1968) advocacy for studying healthy people in lieu of sick people; Diener’s (1984) investigations of happiness and subjective well-being; and Organ (1988) and Batson’s (1994) consideration of “citizenship behaviors” and “prosocial” activities.

Similarly, the early foundations of the organizational development field advocated a “new attitude of optimism and hope” (Bennis, 1969, p. 3) and emphasized The Human Side of Enterprise (McGregor, 1960) as a reaction to the dehumanizing and economically directed emphases in work organizations. Cooperrider and Srivastva’s (1987) introduction of appreciative inquiry spotlighted the positive dynamics associated (p. 5) with planned change and organizational development efforts. Positive organizational scholarship, therefore, is not as much a new field of investigation as it is a coalescing force that brings together themes, perspectives, and variables that have been dispersed in the literature and underdeveloped or ignored in scientific investigation.

Most importantly, much of this earlier positively themed work was not based on scientific research and empirical investigations. It focused instead largely on advocacy and promoting an approach to addressing problems, overcoming ills, and resolving difficulties (e.g., Bennis, 1963; Maslow, 1965). Moreover, little of this work explicitly addressed organizations as the entities of interest. Positive organizational scholarship emerging, therefore, does more than merely construct a repository for earlier work. It highlights the organization as a context for study and at the same time emphasizes the importance of multiple levels of analyses including individuals, groups, and societies. Positive organizational scholarship highlights processes and practices that occur in organizations and are associated with positive outcomes, the empirical rationale for claims about positivity, and the theoretical rationale for the life-giving dynamics and outcomes associated with organizations.

Positive organizational scholarship as an identifiable field of study essentially began in earnest approximately a decade ago at the University of Michigan. As with all historical accounts of how movements and initiatives begin, various scenarios describe the beginnings of scholarly interest in POS, with no single description capturing all the motivations and significant events that produced this field of scholarly endeavor. This said, POS emerged when Jane Dutton, studying individual and organizational compassion, and Kim Cameron, studying organizational forgiveness, joined with colleague Robert Quinn, investigating positive personal change, to sponsor a conference on topics that did not seem to have a home among mainstream organizational studies. The objective was to bring together researchers in psychology and organizational behavior to examine what could be learned collaboratively about positive phenomena in organizations.

During the planning stages of this event, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 occurred in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. Like most other citizens, the conference organizers actualized their strong desire to contribute resources that might benefit those suffering from the pain and tragedies associated with these horrific events. The decision was made to launch a website—Leading in Trying Times (—which shared what had been learned from research relating to positive approaches to difficult situations. Scholars contributed brief articles on topics such as compassion, transcendence, hope, resilience, healing, forgiveness, helping, courage, character, and finding strength. Responses to this website from scholars and practitioners highlighted the need for more attention directed at understanding how to cultivate flourishing in organizational settings amidst the context of challenge and pain.

The subsequent conference brought together scholars working in a variety of academic domains to discuss not only how to address difficult circumstances and problems but also how to foster flourishing and capability-building at the individual, group, and organizational levels. To advance this work, the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship was subsequently formed at the University of Michigan (, with colleagues Wayne Baker, David Mayer, Gretchen Spreitzer, and Lynn Wooten. The title, Positive Organizational Scholarship, was selected to describe the common themes being pursued.

Why Is Research on POS Important?

In addition to revealing and highlighting phenomena that have been largely ignored in organizational studies, scholarly attention focusing on the positive is important because positive conditions produce a “heliotropic effect” (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987; Drexelius, 1627, 1862). Heliotropism is defined as the tendency in all living systems toward positive energy and away from negative energy—or toward that which is life-giving and away from that which is life-depleting (e.g., D’Amato & Jagoda, 1962; Mrosovsky & Kingsmill, 1985; Smith & Baker, 1960). In nature, positive energy is most often experienced in the form of sunlight, but it may occur in other forms as well such as interpersonal kindness (Dutton & Heaphy, 2003; Erhardt-Siebold, 1937). Based on the heliotropic argument, a positive environment is the preferred condition because it engenders positive energy and life-giving resourcefulness. Following this logic, human systems, like other biological systems in nature, possess inherent inclinations toward the positive. Understanding this tendency and its implications is an important need in social and organizational sciences (Cameron, 2008a).

For example, people are more accurate in processing positive information—whether the task involves (p. 6) verbal discrimination, organizational behavior, or judging emotion—than negative information (Matlin & Stang, 1978). People think about a greater number of positive things than negative things, and each positive thing is thought about for a longer period of time. People are more accurate in learning and remembering positive terms than neutral or negative terms (Kunz, 1974; Matlin, 1970; Taylor, 1991). When presented with lists of positive, neutral, and negative words, for example, people are more accurate over time in recalling the positive (Akhtar, 1968; Rychlak, 1977; Thompson, 1930), and the longer the delay between learning and recalling, the more positive bias is displayed (Gilbert, 1938).

People reported thinking about positive statements 20% longer than negative statements and almost 50% longer than neutral statements, so that mental rehearsal is biased toward positivity, and positive information can be recalled more easily and more accurately (Matlin & Stang, 1978). Positive phenomena are learned more quickly than are negative phenomena (Bunch & Wientge, 1933; Rychlak, 1966), and people judge positive phenomena more accurately than negative phenomena. Managers, for example, are much more accurate in rating subordinates’ competencies and proficiencies when they perform correctly than when they perform incorrectly (Gordon, 1970).

People tend to seek out positive stimuli and avoid negative stimuli (Day, 1966; Luborsky, Blinder, & Mackworth, 1963), such that people judge from two-thirds to three-quarters of the events in their lives as positive (Bradburn & Noll, 1969; Havighurst & Glasser, 1972; Meltzer & Ludwig, 1967). Further, most people judge themselves to be positive, optimistic, and happy most of the time (Goldings, 1954; Johnson, 1937; Wessman & Ricks, 1966; Young, 1937). Positive words have higher frequencies in all the languages studied, and positive words typically entered English usage more than 150 years before their negative opposites (for example, “better” entered before “worse”) (Boucher & Osgood, 1968; Mann, 1968; Zajonc, 1968). Central nervous system functioning (i.e., vagus nerve health) is most effective when positive emotions are fostered (Kok & Fredrickson, 2010), and bodily rhythm “coherence” is at its peak when in a positive or virtuous state (McCraty & Childre, 2004).

A bias toward the positive, in other words, appears to characterize human beings in their thoughts, judgments, emotions, language, interactions, and physiological functioning. A tendency toward the positive appears to be a natural human inclination, and empirical evidence suggests that positivity is the preferred and natural state of human beings, just as it is among other biological systems.

Emerging empirical evidence also shows that organizations respond in a way similar to individuals in the presence of positive influences (see Cameron, 2008a, for references). The irony in these findings is that, by definition, positive influences do not need to produce traditionally pursued organizational outcomes in order to be of worth. An increase in profitability, for example, is not the criterion for determining the value of positivity in organizations. Positivity is inherently valued because it is eudaemonic.

Nevertheless, studies have shown that organizations in several industries (including financial services, health care, manufacturing, and government) that implemented and improved their positive practices over time also increased their performance in desired outcomes such as profitability, productivity, quality, customer satisfaction, and employee retention. That is, positive practices that were institutionalized in organizations, including providing compassionate support for employees, forgiving mistakes and avoiding blame, fostering the meaningfulness of work, expressing frequent gratitude, showing kindness, and caring for colleagues, led organizations to perform at significantly higher levels on desired outcomes (Cameron, Bright, & Caza, 2004; Cameron, Mora, & Leutscher, 2010; Gittell, et al., 2006).

Several explanations have been proposed for why heliotropic tendencies exist and why individuals and organizations are inclined toward the positive. For example, Erdelyi (1974) explained that mental processes develop in a way that favors the positive over the negative. Most information available to human beings is disregarded, so what is retained tends to life-giving rather than life-depleting. Becker (1973) explained natural positive biases result from the fear of death, meaning that the negative is repressed and the positive—or the life-preserving—is reinforced; consequently, people develop a bias toward the positive. Learning theorists (e.g., Skinner, 1965) explained positive biases as being associated with reinforcement; that is, positive reinforcement leads to repetitiveness. Further, Sharot, Riccardi, Raio, and Phelps (2007) found that the human brain has a tendency to produce optimistic and positive orientations in its natural state. More mental acuity and mental activation occurs in a positive compared to a negative condition.

Social process theorists have explained positive biases on the basis of the functions they perform in (p. 7) perpetuating social organization (Merton, 1968). Simply stated, organizing depends on positive social processes that reinforce mutual benefit. Observing and experiencing positivity unlocks predispositions to act for the benefit of others, leading to increased social connections in an organization (Feldman & Khademian, 2003; Fredrickson, 2008). Similarly, Gouldner (1960) proposed that positive role modeling and forming positive social norms create a tendency toward organizational sustainability. These positive social processes are more likely to survive and flourish over the long run than are negative social processes because they are functional for the organization’s survival. Weigl, Muller, Zupanc, Glaser, & Angerer (2010) explained that “positive gain spirals” are associated with positivity because they lead individuals to protect, retain, accumulate, and conserve resources more effectively, which are then instrumental in helping organizations perform successfully.

Of course, abundant evidence also exists that human beings cognitively react more strongly to negative phenomena than to positive phenomena (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs 2001; Wang, Galinsky, & Mirnighan, 2009), and evolutionary theory reminds us that living systems respond strongly and quickly to stimuli that threaten their existence or that signal maladaptation (Darwin, 1859/2003). Negatively valenced phenomena have a greater impact on human beings than do positively valenced phenomena of the same type, so that the positive achieves precedence over the effects of the negative only by sheer force of numbers (Baumeister et al., 2001; Fredrickson & Losada, 2006).

This dynamic helps explain why a bias has existed in organizational sciences toward studying the negative much more than the positive (Czapinski, 1985; Seligman, 1999). A larger effect (R2) can usually be detected by accounting for negative phenomena compared to positive phenomena—that is, the bad has stronger effects than the good (Baumeister, et al., 2001)—so it is understandable that researchers have focused on the strongest factors accounting for the most variance. Negative effects often dominate heliotropic inclinations; indeed, they account for a larger amount of variance in behavior change, and they capture more attention in scholarly analyses. More importantly, over time, organizations also tend to emphasize negative phenomena for the same reasons—survival and adaptation are associated with addressing obstacles, competitive pressures, or threats (Davis, 2009; Nadler & Tushman, 1997; Porter, 1998; Williamson, 1998). If greater organizational effects can be created by addressing the negative, it is logical that organizational policies, practices, and processes will, over time, also tend toward focusing on and organizing around negative factors more than positive factors. Evidence of this tendency is confirmed by Margolis and Walsh’s (2003) findings that negative phenomena dominate positive phenomena in the business press and organizational studies literature by a factor of four.

An important function of POS, therefore, is to provide more attention to the processes and practices that can unleash heliotropic effects and elevate resourcefulness. Empirical evidence has suggested that when positive factors are given greater emphases than negative factors, individuals and organizations tend to flourish. The positive then overcomes the negative primarily by sheer force of numbers (Baumeister et al., 2001). Research on POS is important, in other words, because positive phenomena in and through organizations explain variance that has largely been ignored in previous empirical investigations. Processes and attributes are highlighted that have received little attention in previous organizational research. Adopting a positive lens illuminates research questions and relationships that have been underinvestigated and are otherwise ignored. Thus, studying positivity in individuals and in organizations provides fertile territory for understanding the mechanisms and outcomes associated with the naturally occurring, but underinvestigated, inclination toward the positive.

Criticisms of POS

On the other hand, the desirability of POS as a legitimate field of scientific study is by no means universally accepted, and three primary criticisms of POS have been promoted: (a) POS ignores negative phenomena, (b) POS adopts an elitist (managerial) viewpoint, (c) POS is not defined precisely. This third criticism notes that POS does not acknowledge that “positive” may not be the same for everyone, and the concepts and phenomena associated with POS are fuzzy terms that lack construct and discriminant validity and careful measurement.

The first criticism is that POS ignores issues such as conflict, poverty, exploitation, unemployment, war, and other negative circumstances that are typical of the human condition and are commonplace in organizational functioning. Positivity is equated with Pollyannaishness and simply “putting on a happy face” in the midst or serious problems and challenges. Some authors, such as Ehrenreich (2009), for example, find little that is positive in POS, claiming that positivity unrealistically assumes unremitting growth and (p. 8) guaranteed success in organizations, excuses excess and folly, denies reality, mitigates against hard work, implies pride and boastfulness, avoids difficult questions, invites unpreparedness, assumes that all success is deserved, and leads to “reckless optimism” and “delusional thinking.” Little evidence exists, according to these critics, that positivity fosters success (Ehrenreich, 2009; Hackman, 2008).

To be sure, empirical evidence exists that bad is stronger than good (Baumeister, et al., 2001). That is, human beings react more strongly and more quickly to negative phenomena than to positive phenomena because existence is threatened. When equal measures of good and bad are present, the psychological effects of the bad outweigh those of the good. For example, negative feedback has more emotional impact on people than does positive feedback (Coleman, Jussim, & Abraham, 1987), and the effects of negative information and negative events take longer to wear off than do the effects of positive information or pleasant events (Brickman, Coates, & Jason-Bulman, 1978). The negative tends to disrupt normal functioning longer than does the positive, such that a single traumatic event usually has longer lasting effects on behavior than does a single positive event. When negative things happen (for example, people lose a wager, endure abuse, or become a victim of a crime), they spent more time trying to explain the outcome or to make sense of it than when a positive outcome occurs (Gilovich, 1983; Pratto & John, 1991). Moreover, undesirable human traits receive more weight in forming impressions than do desirable traits (Hamilton & Huffman, 1971).

It is inaccurate, however, to argue that POS ignores negative phenomena inasmuch as some of the greatest triumphs, most noble virtues, and highest achievements have resulted from the presence of the negative (e.g., Cameron & Lavine, 2006). Common human experience and abundant scientific evidence supports the idea that negativity has an important place in investigating positive processes and outcomes. Developing positive identities in negative environments, organizational healing after trauma, and achieving virtuous outcomes in the face of trials exemplify cases in which negative conditions have been investigated with a POS lens (Kanov, Maitlis, Worline, Dutton, Frost, & Lilius, 2004; Powley & Cameron, 2006; Powley & Taylor, 2006; Weick, 2003, 2006). Positive organizational scholarship does not ignore the negative; instead, it seeks to investigate the positive processes, outcomes, and interpretations embedded in negative phenomena.

A second criticism of POS is that it adopts an elitist perspective. Critics claim that POS is oriented toward exploiting human beings in favor of corporate profits and productivity, and maintaining power for the advantaged over the disadvantaged. Perpetuating the positive for the sake of organizational success, to make managers look good, to manipulate the workforce, or to reinforce unequal employment status are common criticisms (e.g., Ehrenreich, 2009; Fineman, 2006; George, 2004). These critiques fundamentally center on the claim that POS narrowly focuses on managers rather than on the exploited underclass. Detractors accuse POS of not asking the question, “Positive for whom?” and suggest that unexamined assumptions are biased toward Western philosophies and toward power elites.

On the other hand, this criticism seems to miss the unequivocally stated focus of POS on life-giving dynamics, generating resources, and flourishing outcomes whether for workers or managers, the underclass or the upper class, the individual or the organization (e.g., Cameron, et al., 2003; Dutton & Sonenshein, 2009; Roberts, 2006). The fundamental assumption of POS is a eudaemonic one: all human systems are biased toward achieving the highest aspirations of humankind or excellence and goodness for its own sake. Adopting an affirmative bias prioritizes positive energy, positive climate, positive relationships, positive communication, and positive meaning for individuals and organizations. Indeed, exploitation that allows one party to achieve advantage over another is inconsistent with the fundamental assumptions of POS. Thus, the answer to “Positivity for whom?” is not exclusive.

Fletcher (1998), for example, documented how positive practices actually reverse the disadvantaged status of underprivileged employees. Positive energy (Baker, et al., 2003), flourishing relationships (Dutton & Heaphy, 2003), empowerment (Spreitzer, 1992), and virtuousness (Cameron, 2003) all represent non-zero-sum dynamics that benefit all parties. Moreover, abundant research has examined cultural differences regarding positive phenomena, including employee well-being in more than 50 countries (Diener, 2009a; Diener & Suh, 1997; Veenhoven, 1996, 2010) and has identified universal attributes and predictors, as well as unique cultural differences across a wide variety of cultures. Non-Western cultures are well-represented in positive research (including in some chapters of this Handbook).

(p. 9) A third criticism of POS, related to the first two, is that a precise definition of the term “positive” is lacking. Positive is experienced subjectively, such that what may be positive for one person is not necessarily positive for another. What is defined as “good” or “ennobling” may be individualistic. Imposing a definition of positive on others is an act of power and, therefore, is, by definition, nonpositive (Caza & Carroll, 2011). Moreover, other related terms used in POS research lack precise definition and scientific validity.

Of course, many core scientific terms are the subjects of investigation, measurement, and theory-building without precise definitions. Well-used and frequently discussed terms such as “life,” “leadership,” and “quality” are examples, none of which has been precisely and consensually defined. These terms are considered to be “constructs,” meaning they are terms constructed to capture the meaning of something that is ambiguous and difficult to circumscribe precisely. In such circumstances, investigators artificially constrain the meaning or dimensions of the construct in order to examine certain aspects of it. The key is to be precise about what is and is not included in measuring the construct. Individualistic definitions are addressed, therefore, by defining the concept scientifically and precisely in scholarly investigations.

As in many domains within the organizational sciences, this requirement is important in research on positive phenomena, and constant attention to this requirement is crucial. Improvement can certainly be made on this score in POS. On the other hand, a variety of positively oriented constructs such as “thriving” (Spreitzer et al., 2005), “virtuousness” (Cameron et al., 2004), “positive emotions” (Fredrickson, 1998), “meaningfulness” (Pratt & Ashforth, 2003), “energy” (Fritz, Lam, & Spreitzer, 2011), “best-self” (Roberts Dutton, Spreitzer, Heaphy, & Quinn, 2005), “resilience” (Sutcliffe & Vogus, 2003), “positive deviance” (Spreitzer & Sonenshein, 2003), and many others have been defined quite carefully in POS investigations. Scientific standards and rigor within POS research studies have not been ignored.

Nevertheless, vigilance must be maintained to be as precise as possible regarding what is and is not defined as positive. By identifying the four domains of the term “positive” (as discussed), the conceptual boundaries of POS become clearer, and the same requirement applies to all POS-related constructs. In other words, mapping the conceptual terrain of “positive” is not so much an act of power as a scientific necessity in order for cumulative work to be conducted and for the nomological network surrounding the constructs to expand. Some progress has been made in this regard, although much is left to be done.

The Organization of the Handbook

To these ends, the domains of “positive” in the Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship have been organized into nine categories. This Handbook does not claim to contain a comprehensive list of relevant or important topics, nor does it claim to cover the entire conceptual landscape of POS. Nevertheless, the chapters represent a good sample of significant subjects in this field of study, and they help map the discipline’s terrain.

Each chapter contains a relevant literature review—essentially addressing the question, “What do we now know about this topic?”—and the findings of current scholarship. Chapters also suggest and recommend needed future research—essentially addressing the question, “What else do we need to know about this topic?” Hence, chapters serve as a useful summary of up-to-date knowledge and a guide to future scholarship in POS for the decades ahead.

The chapter groupings represent a somewhat arbitrary categorization of major themes. They exemplify different levels of analysis, from individual-level topics to organization- and societal-level topics. They also include topics that are traditionally considered to be negative or problem-centered—such as trauma, stress, crises, and conflict—and topics not usually considered within the domain of POS—such as economic theory, sustainability, and social movements. Each chapter adopts a positive lens and emphasizes the relevance of these topics to the broad area of inquiry called POS.

Certain sections in the Handbook address issues of practice, such as the section on human resource practices and the section on leadership and change, while other sections address key theoretical issues embedded in organization studies, including organizational processes and positive relationships. The placement of chapters in a particular section does not imply that other sections may not also be appropriate, but the nine categories provide a reasonably clear schema to highlight the domains of POS. The chapter placements serve to illustrate and highlight these themes. The nine categories are described below.

Positive Individual Attributes

This first section contains chapters focusing on the positive attributes of individuals in organizations. (p. 10) These chapters treat the individual as the relevant level of analysis but position individuals in the context of work organizations. Chapters address these themes:

  • Psychological capital

  • Prosocial motivation

  • Callings in work

  • Work engagement

  • Positive identity

  • Proactivity

  • Creativity

  • Curiosity

  • Positive traits

  • The neuroscience underpinnings of POS

Positive Emotions

The second section focuses on aspects of positive feelings, sentiments, and affect among individuals and groups in organizations. Examining emotions and subjective experience are the themes these chapters have in common. Topics addressed include:

  • Positive energy

  • Positive emotions

  • Subjective well-being

  • Passion

  • Socioemotional intelligence

  • Group emotions

Strengths and Virtues

The third section addresses the concepts of virtuousness in organizations and virtues in the individuals who work in organizations. Prior research has proposed that various virtues are universal; this section therefore contains just a limited sampling of topics, including:

  • Virtuousness

  • Forgiveness

  • Humility

  • Compassion

  • Hope

  • Courage

  • Justice

  • Integrity

  • Positive ethics

  • Leveraging strengths

  • Character strengths in global managers

Positive Relationships

This section focuses on temporary encounters, and long-term relationships among organization members. It analyses the dynamics that emerge in interpersonal interactions, temporary connections, and organizational processes that relate to relationships. The chapters examine these topics:

  • High-quality connections

  • Relational coordination

  • Reciprocity

  • Intimacy

  • Civility

  • Trust

  • Trustworthiness

  • Humor

  • Psychological safety

Positive Human Resource Practices

The chapters in this section provide perspective on practices within organizations that relate to managing human capital and human resource systems. Topics of potential interest to human resource professionals, and that are addressed in human resource management functions, include:

  • Career development

  • Mentoring

  • Socialization

  • Diversity

  • Communication

  • Conflict resolution

  • Negotiating

  • Work–family dynamics

Positive Organizational Processes

This section contains chapters that examine the dynamics in organizations that are not usually considered to fall into the positive domain. The chapters address organization-level topics, and by adopting a positive lens, the chapters highlight how POS is relevant to a broad variety of phenomena. They include:

Symbolism in organizations

  • Resourcefulness

  • Collective efficacy

  • The design of work

  • Mindful organizing

  • Goal attainment

  • Organizational identity

  • Organizational energy

  • Innovation

  • Organizational boundaries

Positive Leadership and Change

Chapters in this section address the process of positive organizational change and the leadership associated with achieving positive change. These chapters examine the strategies and approaches that enable (p. 11) organizational change and the leadership qualities associated with successful organizations. The topics addressed are:

Organizational development

  • Appreciative inquiry

  • Positive change attributes

  • Implementing positive change

  • Authentic leadership

  • Leadership development

  • Peak performance

  • Strategic change

  • Strengths-based strategy

A Positive Lens on Problems and Challenges

Because POS is often accused of ignoring nonpositive phenomena, chapters in this section address challenges, issues, and problems from a positive perspective. They illustrate the importance of the negative in better understanding the positive. Chapters include:

  • Managing the unexpected

  • Healing after trauma

  • Organizational recovery

  • Responding to crisis

  • Resilience under adversity

  • Post-traumatic growth

  • Ambivalence

  • Responding to stress

Expanding Positive Organizational Scholarship

The final section features chapters that explore the relationships between POS and areas of scholarly interest other than traditional organizational behavior and organizational theory. Disciplines such as economics, sociology, religion, and political science are included in these chapters, which focus on:

  • Sustainability

  • Critical theory

  • Economic models

  • Social movements

  • Spirituality

  • Positive deviance

  • International peacemaking


The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship seeks to provide a foundation upon which POS research can continue. It summarizes the current state of the field by explaining relevant research and conceptual grounding for key concepts within the general domain of POS. Any scholarly field of endeavor will have a short lifespan unless founded on valid evidence, theoretical explanation, and practical utility, so the chapters in this Handbook seek to provide that foundation. Equally important, however, is the guidance each chapter provides regarding unanswered questions, puzzles, and needed investigations. Our hope is that the suggested directions for future research each chapter provides will not be dismissed as perfunctory supplements to the chapters’ content, but as a roadmap to make significant progress in understanding POS in the years ahead.


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